Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Why Don't Ya' Do Right?" ("Weed Smoker's Dream") - Benny Goodman with Peggy Lee (1943)

This song is on just about all the CD’s in my car. It fits in well in any of the odd compilations I listen to. On one CD it can be heard between something by Ten Years After and Gillian Welch. On another it comes on at the end of “Maybe This Time” by Liza Minnelli and then followed by Abbott and Costello doing their best version of “Who’s on First.” It turns up again and again.

It’s not just the music that has held sway me on this one. Many times it’s that “back story” which adds something to the song, or just makes hearing it remind you of the story that goes with it. This is one that gets me on both levels; it’s a terrific song and a great story as well!

I love comparing the original versions of songs with their more famous ones. Take the song “I left My Heart in San Francisco” as an example. The Tony Bennett version is the most beloved. But my favorite is the live version by Dean Martin. As far as I’m concerned; and I know most people will disagree with me; he owns that song. But, I’m losing time here. Let’s get back to the “backstory” behind Benny Goodman’s version of “Why Don’t You Do Right (Like Some Other Men Do)”.

The song was never one which interested Mr. Goodman at all. It was recorded by the Harlem Hamfats on Decca Records in Chicago back in 1936. Written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Herb Moran it was originally titled “Weed Smoker’s Dream” with a subtitle of “Why Don’t You Do Now?” Lil Green recorded it a few years later as slow bluesy song which bears no real resemblance to Ms. Green’s recording.

That record became a favorite of Peggy Lee’s and she would blast it from her dressing room each night before the show. It was like a warmup for her. At first Mr. Benny was kind of annoyed with the repetition of the record night after night as he worked on arrangements for the band. Then one night he knocked on Ms. Lee’s dressing room door.

“You like that song a lot don’t you?”, he reportedly asked. “I sure do.” She is said to have replied. “Fine”, said Mr. Goodman, “I’ll have an arrangement made for you.” Then he went back to his dressing room and she went back to listening to the Lil Green record.

By July 27, 1942 they were in the studio recording the song in a slightly faster version of Ms. Green’s.  This would become the signature arrangement for this iconic song, which is still a staple of big band enthusiasts today. It’s also heard in some of the finer restaurants. Places where you hear “Black and Blue” by Louis Armstrong, or “Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw’s Orchestra.

At any rate, the record sold 1 million copies in a few short weeks, and though it only hit #4 on Billboard; which was a bit short of Mr. Goodman’s usual #1 recordings; it did become one of his most requested live numbers. It also served to bring Peggy Lee to the public’s attention. Her voice was more full and sensuous than most singers of the era; with the exception of Lena Horne, who defines both those terms.

In some respects this recording was the beginning of Ms. Lee’s long career as a solo artist. Indeed, she re-recorded it as a solo artist in 1947 after leaving Mr. Goodman’s band in 1943. She married the guitar player Dave Barbour; you have to watch out for the guitar players. But her performance of this song; especially on film; kept her in the public eye, and in 1947 she returned to recording with a new arrangement of the song. The one in my car is the same live version as above from the 1943 film "Stage Door Canteen".

Well, that’s the story that I enjoy so much that I had to share it. Probably seems a bit tame; no tricks involved. But here are the other 2 earlier version of the recording by Lil Green and the Harlem Hamfats. I’ve placed the Lil Green version first as it is at least recognizable. The Harlem Hamfats version will take a little effort to listen to.

Here is the 1941 recording by Lil Green, which is a bit slower than the Benny Goodman arrangement;

And this is the original recording by the Harlem Hamfats. Aside from some signature hooks and phrases the song is almost unrecognizable from the later versions recorded by Ms. Green and Ms. Lee;

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